Don’t be afraid of failure because that is a necessary step toward success as a startup.
Can You Tell Us a Little Bit About Yourself?
I am Chao-Wei Huang, I graduated from the Department of Animal Science and Technology at the National Taiwan University. At the end of my PhD program, I have the chance to get involved in a project that uses biochips for on-site selection in the pig industry. In 2018, I applied for the LEAP program and joined the GLOBE program in Berkeley to see if there is an opportunity for collaboration on technical aspects of my proposal and also seeking the chance to obtain funding for our start-up idea. During the program, I also applied to SkyDeck and got selected as a hotdesk team. Now, I am an Assistant Professor at the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology.
Why are you interested in participating in the GLOBE program and what are your startup ideas? How did you think of this idea?
Berkeley is ranked top three in engineering, and it has a strong connection with Taiwan. My start-up idea is to select better livestocks (pigs) on-site by genotyping with microfluidic biochip. To seek the breakthrough opportunity of the technique and the networking, Berkeley is the only option for me . While I was in Berkeley, I joined Liwei Lin‘s lab and tried to develop the prototype for further application.
While I was in Taiwan, our team was excited about the prototype that could genotype the pigs. But after discussing with the customers (farmers who raise pigs) who we think would purchase the chips, I have to say our prototype did not fit their needs. They don’t need products with fancy techniques. All they want is to increase the production efficiency at a lower cost. The things they care about are technologies which are cheaper and easier to be implemented to their production system. Hence, I pivoted with my idea to provide the algorithm for them to select pigs in real time. Even though I still think that the biochip for on-site detection is the future, providing the solution to what customer need immediately is really the most important thing. In addition, our biochip is too complicated for the customers (farmers who raise pigs) to use. Hence, it is not validated by the market.
From this experience, I noticed that there is a huge gap between the research in the lab and the market needs. To fulfill the gap, I think I have to upgrade not only our techniques but also learn from the ecosystems that already incubated many successful companies, one of which being UC Berkeley. In addition, the GLOBE program in Berkeley fits both of my criteria. By joining the GLOBE program, I not only got into the startup program, but I also have the opportunity to network with the Biomedical industry that is active in Silicon Valley.
Most of us think start-ups are based on technology. However, after I came to Berkeley, we learned that customers are the most important and we have to use minimal viable products (MVP) to keep iterating our product to fit our customers’ needs. I think if we stick to technology, we will be restricted to what we can do. Now, I learned that we should focus on what the customers need first and then combine it with the technology so they will consider buying it. The technology itself may not support the business, instead it only supports the concept of doing business. A lot of biochips were invested millions of dollars and developed for ten years or more. In America, there are a lot of resources to develop these biochips. They will be purchased by big pharma. However, in Taiwan, it is not as easy as in America and we still have a lot of certifications to apply, which is similar to gaining FDA approval in America. Even though there are a lot of biochip companies, the final products on the market are still limited.
Could you tell us a little bit about the LEAP program and your experience with it?
The LEAP program is funded by industry in science or technology as well as the National Research Lab. The program provides opportunities to PhD or people with engineering background for over 3-5 years. And there are two tracks of the program, one is for academics and one is for the industry. The LEAP program collaborates with reputable schools and institutions, like Berkeley, Duke, Stanford, and Michigan Hospitals. They also offer opportunities in big companies like Roche and Microsoft to LEAP scholars if you decide to choose the industrial track.
I am a biologist, but Prof. Liwei Lin, the principal investigator (PI) who hosted me, is focusing on the engineering field. That is why I applied to the program and feel very lucky to be selected. The LEAP program provided an opportunity for me to join the labs in Berkeley and helped me to learn skills in these well-known labs. In addition, we also have the opportunity to apply for SkyDeck, which is the startup accelerator program at UC Berkeley. If you don’t have a Berkeley affiliation, it is really challenging to get into SkyDeck Accelerator because you would have to compete with other global startups. LEAP gave me this opportunity to join one of the most well-known labs in the world as well as SkyDeck in Berkeley!
What are the challenges you had for your startup and how did you overcome those challenges?
At first, I wanted to sell my tech to farmers who raise pigs, however, the farmers cannot accept the change to genotyping their pigs and the cost of implementation. Farmers are really busy working on their farms, so they cannot afford to waste time in things they believe are inefficient. Hence, it is really challenging for me to sell them the things that will not have immediate benefits. If time is so important for them, I think it would be helpful to provide them with a decision-making software to assist them make decisions faster and easier. In the end, I provided them with a visualization report for them to make their decision easier.
Could you please tell us a little bit about your host faculty in Berkeley?
Prof. Liwei Lin is the professor who hosted me while I was at UC Berkeley. He not only provided the experiment resources such as equipment, but he also shared his networking with me to collaborate with professors in UCSF. In addition, I had the opportunity to collaborate with his lab members. Professor Liwei Lin has rich experience in the industry, he also gave me great strategic advice. My lab members Dr. Chen and I published a paper where we used CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to detect bacteria in urea. And the postdoc in Prof. Jennifer Doudna’s lab also helped us to develop this technology.
What is the startup ecosystem in Taiwan like and what are the differences or similarities between Taiwan and the Bay Area?
In my opinion, I think we are more technology-oriented in start-up. The general personality in Taiwan is afraid of failing. We prefer to follow the “easier” or “better” pace that everyone told us. However, in the States, even undergraduates are talking about start-up ideas and seeking for the opportunities. In Bay area, the concept of start-up is more like if there is no ecosystem, we can build an ecosystem so everyone can make money. In Taiwan, we get used to sharing the benefits of an existing market, which will lead to zero-sum market.
What made you decide to launch your start-up in America?
Why I wanted to come to America from Taiwan is because Taiwan purchases pigs from America. However, pigs have problems with adaptation from America to Taiwan. I wanted to make a platform for exchanging the information between Taiwan pig farm and US pig farm, which may provide the best match or the optimal breeding pigs for the pig farmer in Taiwan. Let’s say the tinder for pig industry but not only displays what the pigs look like but also the genetic background to make sure that the genetic background could be preserved.
The pigs-breeding industry has already been established by USDA for many years in
America. That is why we wanted to go to America to do the start-up, because
there are many pigs with excellent genetic background which could be selected for breeding. If we could provide a platform for the farmers in Taiwan, the improvement of our pig herd will increase rapidly.
What was your experience with the Berkeley SkyDeck Hotdesk program?
There are two programs: cohort and hotdesk in SkyDeck. The committee in Skydeck will select you and match you to the program that fit you. If you are in a cohort program, you will get funded, but they will take your equity. If you are hotdesk, you will have the same resources as cohort team but without funding.
For the application, they will ask you what is your business, what category are you working on right now. Basically, they will ask about your background. The second interview is about what is your technology, and they will expect you to explain it very very detail. Their technology questions will be really specific, you have to differentiate what is your technology. If your technology is defensible, then would it also be patentable? Can your competitors copy you easily or you have the strength to overcome this type of challenge. The other one is that your business idea is big enough. Your technology should be 10 times greater than the others. If your market is not big enough, the investor will not invest in you. You have to find a big enough market to do that. After that, the committee will decide if you are accepted to the hotdesk team or cohort team.
In the first week of the program, you have orientation, and then every week you have a mixer event. You can talk your ideas with others to build connections. You should definitely communicate with others and keep relationships with others because a lot of advisors will join the mixer so you can ask questions. They have a presentation on Berkeley accelerated methods per week. It also includes Startup 101: how to pitch, how to get funded, how to spare equity, and how many co-founders are better for your team. They will tell you everything about that. They provide biopharma connections, but you have to find which resources are best for you. Because the opportunity will not come to you, you have to ask. That is how things work in Skydeck.
Do you want to share any caveats, observations or advice about doing your own start-up with us
We have to find customer needs first as it is most important as compared to the technology itself. Don’t be afraid of failure because we want to learn more about customers. Make more connections with people. It’s better to make a list and have a spreadsheet to note every person might help you, or already helped you and keep taking care of them because the connection is so important in a start-up. If you keep your relationship with them, someday when you need help, we will be able to reach out and ask for help from them. And don’t be afraid of asking for help. People in general are happy to help!
What advice do you have for future GLOBE Scholars?
Most of the people who graduated from engineering background always think technology is the most important thing, but I think they have to forget about every technology they have learned. And they have to ask good questions, learn from customers and collaborate with people. Do not get lost with all the resources, because you have to focus on what you want to build. There are a lot of mentors, ask what is a very good idea for the startup. A very good indication for a good idea is that when you share your idea with people and they keep on asking about it. While you start to execute the plans don’t change your mind easily because of other noises but to learn when to pivot is also a great lesson during the journey. I think the most important thing is not what you achieved at the end, but the journey that you have been through. Go
Chao-Wei is currently an assistant professor at the National Pingtung university of Science and Technology(NPUST). He graduated from the Department of Animal Science and Technology in National Taiwan University(NTU). He is an alumni of the GLOBE program and the LEAP Program in UC Berkeley. He is also a member of the Berkeley Skydeck Hotdesk cohort.
Feel free to connect with Chao-Wei via LinkedIn
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